How trans identity politics imprisons us all

Long-read

How trans identity politics imprisons us all

The quest for ‘authenticity’ has turned into a narcissistic demand for recognition.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Long-reads Politics

The ideal of authenticity – of being true to one’s self – is one of the governing ethics of modern social and political life.

Public figures, from politicians to reality-TV stars, aspire to be authentic. Producers of goods promise ‘the real thing’. And, above all, authenticity provides identity politics with its moral propulsion. It’s what justifies individuals and groups in their quest to express their true identities, hitherto suppressed, effaced or simply ignored by mainstream society.

Nowhere is this ethic more pronounced right now than in trans identity politics. For this is a cause explicitly motivated by the desire for people to be true to some inner, gendered sense of themselves – their so-called gender identity. This, as trans-activist charity Stonewall defines it, refers to individuals’ ‘innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else… which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth’. Indeed, this supposed conflict between an individual’s authentic inner feeling of gender and the inauthentic gender roles they are expected to play is at the heart of the trans cause. As one author puts it, it is a ‘collision between who we are, how we should be, how we need to express ourselves and live our lives, and the gendered straitjackets others would force us into. It is the misery, the wrongness, of being forced to live a lie. The pain of being called fakes for our authenticity.’

Critics of trans ideology tend to interpret it on its own terms. They try to understand its development and insurgence through the ideology’s own internal history. Some look at the work of clinicians John Money and Robert Stoller on intersex, gender roles and identity in the Sixties. Others wade through the verbal thickets of Judith Butler and the subversive games of queer theory. And they do so in order to explain how trans ideology came to deny biological reality.

This is certainly useful. But the resonance of trans identity politics among a significant minority has less to do with the reality-defying genius or otherwise of its proponents, than the fact it expresses, in arguably its purest form yet, this simple but pervasive cultural ideal – be true to yourself. This certainly has the ring of virtue, which is part of its appeal. But identitarians have warped this ideal, turning it from a call for individual freedom into a narcissistic demand for recognition.

The rise of authenticity

The ascendancy of authenticity as a cultural ideal has been a long time coming. In his remarkable 1970 lecture series, published in 1972 as Sincerity and Authenticity, critic Lionel Trilling noted that authenticity had become part of ‘the moral slang’ of the era. Which made sense. From the 1950s onwards, beatniks, hipsters and numerous other rebels without causes were openly signalling their rejection of the social mainstream. They railed against the social roles they were expected to play, mocked the tightly ordered, picket-fenced nightmare of the supposedly affluent society, and chafed against the prospect of becoming an Organisation Man. They damned it all as, in a word, inauthentic – a social existence that stunted and denied their very being.

Instead, this burgeoning counterculture spoke of getting in touch with one’s feelings, of finding one’s inner child, of ‘goofing’ around or seeking out some pharmaceutically aided mode of spontaneous self-revelation. It seemed of a piece with what the social theorist Theodore Roszak, in his 1968 article ‘Youth and the Great Refusal’, called the effort to forge ‘new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant Work Ethic’. To be oneself was not a tautology here; it was a personal project of self-cultivation. And it was intrinsically political, a challenge to the prevailing social order in which one’s true self was stifled and suffocated.

Of course, the roots of this newly emergent ethic, this protest, indeed this ‘moral slang’, reached back further. They can be found in the existentialist currents coursing through the New Left and the counterculture more broadly, with Sartre’s attack on living in ‘bad faith’ and Camus’s figure of ‘l’étranger’ particularly resonant. And in this debt to the French Left Bank, the roots of this ideal stretch further back still, to Martin Heidegger (whose lectures Sarte attended) and his 1927 opus, Being and Time, which was explicitly premised on the distinction between ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic’ ways of being. To be authentic, for Heidegger, was to cast off the inauthentic modes of life prescribed by society, and assume responsibility for one’s own life. Or at least that was one reading.

And it was not just the thought of Heidegger that, having emerged from the ravaged Europe of the 1920s, now resonated with the affluent society of the postwar West. Sigmund Freud played a key role here, too. For many in the counterculture, his work struck a nerve, albeit against the grain of his own project. According to this later therapeutic reading of Freud, influenced by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, the truth of one’s self lay less in one’s conscious sense of what one ought to be – the respectable husband or dutiful wife – than in that great reservoir of feelings and impulses that had been repressed and distorted beneath by the social pressure of the ego and superego. The trick was to get in touch with these feelings. Be true to them. Maybe even set them free.

In fact, the roots of authenticity as an ideal, and as a critique of the stifling inauthenticity of social life, stretch even further back to the Enlightenment – where Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought to escape a life lived according to the opinions of others – and to the later Romantic rebellion against aspects of the Enlightenment inspired, in part, by Rousseau himself.

But it is during the Sixties that this long-running, ever-mutating theme moved from the margins of Western high-cultural life to its political centre. And it did so as a radical promise, a dream of a freedom, in which individuality would flourish as people started trying to be true to themselves. As the Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement had it, this was now a political project, an attempt to realise ‘men’s unrealised potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity’. The statement added: ‘The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity, but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.’

As American Marxist Marshall Berman pointed out in The Politics of Authenticity, published in 1971, the promotion and politicisation of the idea of authenticity was likely to be the New Left’s ‘lasting cultural achievement’. For good or ill, Berman may have been right.

Gender identity and the authenticity trap

The dream of a life lived authentically seemed, at least when the New Left seized upon it, to have some notion of freedom at its core. To be true to yourself – to your lived experience as a woman, to your marginalisation as a black man and often to just your feelings and desires – was simultaneously to want to be free to be true to yourself. Prevailing ways of life, traditions and social and cultural norms were cast as an impediment to people’s self fulfillment – and therefore chains from which they had to emancipate themselves.

But this was also a very turbid notion of freedom. To what exactly was one being true? The older, Romantic idea of authenticity, drew on religious and moral notions of conscience and the laws of nature and of the heart. One was therefore able to be true to an inner moral voice, sentiment or feeling. And right up until the existentialists, authenticity was still entwined with the Enlightenment notion of autonomy – the idea, that is, of a self-legislating subject. So again, one could be true to moral laws of one’s own making.

But in the hands of the New Left, any connections authenticity had with these older traditions had become very weak. Indeed, being true to oneself seemed, by the Sixties, close to self-indulgence. And no wonder. For this was a notion of freedom whose 20th-century resonance was very much tied up with emergent therapy culture, the rise of consumerism and the increasing prominence given to lifestyle and leisure in the postwar era.

How trans identity politics imprisons us all

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that those on the New Left and the counterculture more broadly – promoting, pushing and, above all, politicising authenticity – really did see their cause as emancipatory. They really did want the freedom to live one’s life in accordance with one’s inner sense of self. Indeed, the freedom to pursue a project of self-identification, by expressing outwardly what you feel inwardly. And in doing so, they set one’s very self against the supposedly repressive social scripts adhered to by the apparently inauthentic masses.

This idea of freedom, providing the fuel for much of identity politics over the past half a century, clearly animates the trans-rights cause today. It allows prominent trans activist Shon Faye to talk in New Left terms of the seemingly radical challenge ‘trans people’s existence’ poses to ‘social norms’. It allows Guardian columnist Ellie Mae O’Hagan to champion transgenderism as a means for ‘confronting patriarchal norms, and promoting a more fluid understanding of gender’, so as to create a ‘happier, freer’ world for women and trans people. And perhaps most striking of all, it drives the ongoing attempt to reform the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (2004) in order to make one’s gender a mere matter of self-identification.

But the rise of trans identity politics over the past decade has also exposed what the politicisation of authenticity means in practice. Its New Left champions may have understood it as a call for freedom. But, as trans activism is demonstrating on a weekly basis, this demand has turned into something else: a coercive demand for recognition. That, after all, is the whole purpose of reforming the GRA – to give legal sanction to the insistence that others recognise who trans people ‘really’ are.

It is quite a project. It demands that institutions and individuals affirm the self-fashioned identity of the ‘authentic’ person. That society calls him by his chosen pronouns. Mirrors his self-image. Permits him to be in certain spaces – in female changing rooms, girls’ schools and women’s refuges – according to his sense of his ‘authentic’ inner being.

Recognition has always played a central role in identity politics. In the 1990s, philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out that self-identification – being true to oneself – was actually a ‘dialogic’ process, whereby one’s authentic self-expression was formed in relation to others, from one’s parents to other members of society. This was not an easy process. It was, with Taylor drawing on Hegel, a struggle for recognition – a process, that is, in which consciousness of one’s self, as master, slave or indeed citizen, is forged through one’s often conflictual relationship with others.

Yet there are two key differences between any Hegel-inspired ‘struggle for recognition’ and trans activists’ demand for recognition. The first is that Hegel’s struggle for recognition, beginning famously in the conflict between master and slave, resolves itself in a mutual recognition of what is universal to all, namely human dignity. Today’s identitarian demand for recognition, however, results in a recognition only of what is particular to each identity group.

The second, more important difference, is that Taylor’s dialogic struggle for recognition has an almost informal quality to it, as if individuals and groups are arguing about what is to be recognised among themselves. But that is not the case with identity politics today. And certainly not trans identity politics. As the campaign to reform the Gender Recognition Act shows, the trans demand for recognition is mediated by the state. Trans activists effectively want to legally force society to recognise their ‘authentic’ self-expression.

This is why trans-activist writing drips with legalese. One trans author, for example, writes of how social institutions, from school to workplaces, find it too easy to deny the ‘legitimacy’ of trans people’s truth. They must therefore be made to acknowledge it. Another writes that ‘we believe we have the right to be who we want to be’, meaning, of course, the right to be recognised as who one claims to be.

The demand for recognition here turns out not to be ‘dialogic’ at all. Not least because the identitarian does not want a dialogue – certainly not with the ‘transphobic’ society he feels is repressing his inner self. Indeed, given all the talk among identity-politics theorists about ‘intersubjectivity’ and ‘dialogics’, identity politics in practice turns out to be a monologue, in which the authenticity seekers construct their identity on their own terms, and use the state to deny others’ their right to dissent from their self-interpretation.

This is what the freedom to be true to oneself has become. The right to clamp down on the freedom of others.

In today’s trans identity politics, then, we can glimpse the grim reality of society organised around the ethic of authenticity. The freedom to be true to oneself, once it becomes a political project pursued through the state, becomes something else entirely. It becomes a justification for coercion. And in doing so, it forcibly turns one’s relationships with others into little more than a means of self-affirmation. The result is not a ‘freer, happier’ society, but a more rancorous and above all narcissistic one – a society used, against its will, to reflect individuals’ self-images back to them.

Pursuing the ideal of authenticity has not freed the self at all. It has imprisoned the self in an infinite hall of mirrors.

Tim Black is a columnist at spiked.

Pictures by: Getty Images.

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